Here’s why gut microbe strains play major role in overall health, disease risk

For years, scientists and medical professionals have researched gut health in relation to wellness and disease. The study of gut health centers around the makeup of an individual’s microbiome. The microbiome is the network of trillions of microorganisms with thousands of different species living inside an individual body. These microorganisms coexist in a peaceful symbiotic relationship inside of healthy organisms. This microbiome network is such a vital system inside the body, it’s considered a support organ. 

The Makeup of the Microbiome

The study of the microbiome over the last decades has been more of an aerial view, studying the overall makeup of bacterial species in the gut. Now, two new studies have been published by the Gladstone Institute, exploring the idea that the strain of bacteria in the microbiome must be studied to gain a greater understanding of the microbiome and gut health. Until now, most research has centered around specific bacteria species rather than the zoomed-in study of individual strains of bacteria. 

Studying bacteria as an overall species could be related to researching the entire species of dogs. In the same way, these new studies are working on breaking bacterial species into their strains, much like separating breeds of dogs into categories (i.e. Corgis or Great Danes).  

New Studies Separating Species and Strain

These groundbreaking studies have been headed up by Katie Pollard, Ph.D., the director of the Gladstone Institute of Data and Science Biotechnology. “I think researchers have been missing a lot of information by just focusing on the species of microbes. When we take a more fine-grained approach and look at the strains of bacteria, I predict that we’ll start finding causal links between the microbiome and diseases,” says Pollard in a recent statement.

Gladstone researchers show that monitoring the strains of bacteria—and not just the species—may provide better insights into the microbiome. (Photo credit: Michael Short/Gladstone Institutes)

Technological Advancements in Microbiome Research

Pollard’s research lab has also worked alongside other leading scientists to develop a brand new computational method of studying the microbiome. This new technological algorithm allows scientists to quickly, accurately, and affordably analyze bacterial strains like never before. 

Before these innovations, examining the microorganisms that make up an organism’s microbiome required expensive, high-level computing technology and vast amounts of cloud storage space. Many labs do not have these resources readily available to their teams of researchers. Not only that, but researchers would have to carry out the ultra-tedious task of sequence alignment. This technique requires a researcher to compare millions of DNA sections housed in the genomes of thousands of bacteria within the microbiome. Then contrast the collected information with sequences of every known microorganism in a database.

However, a new algorithmic design has recently converged with the discovery of 104 million short strings of DNA, which are the most often seen variation of strains in the bacterial genome, to create a new sequence called GenoTyper for Prokaryotes (GT-Pro).

Stephen Nayfach, Ph.D., a research scientist at the US Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, describes the importance of this scientific innovation to the study of microbiomes. 

“With the explosion of newly sequenced genomes from the gut microbiome and other environments, we can now create detailed genetic maps for thousands of bacterial species[…] Our approach leverages this prior information to rapidly and comprehensively identify the genetic variants in a microbiome sample without performing time-consuming sequence alignments,” says Nayfach.

The Bright Future of Gut Health and Wellness 

This new algorithm can allow researchers to study what is happening in the microbiome on a more intricate level, thus allowing links between strains of bacteria and health or sickness to become more apparent. “There’s still a lot of work to be done to understand the functional consequences of differences in the microbiome. But until now, we haven’t had the right measurement tools to ask these questions—and now we do,” adds Pollard.

Discovering these detailed nuances between bacterial stains in the microbiome can help researchers and medical professionals understand the makeup of bacteria with individuals with certain illnesses or diseases. Hopefully, this newfound knowledge can lead to contributions and cures to many diseases of the day.   

Pollard’s latest study is published in Nature Biotechnology. The other was published in online in August in the journal Genome Research.

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